‘Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous; and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands’
(Thomas Jefferson, 1785).
Ever since the founding of America, agriculture has been a major industry and the backbone of American society and culture. Although it began with humble origins, as American colonists scraped a living in the New World, today America feeds the world from expansive farms and a food processing industry whose size boggles the mind.
But, even with all its advances, many American citizens are now possessed with a ‘new’ fad, a desire to return to the simple agrarian life, once enjoyed by millions of Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
This ‘Back to the land’ movement, begun in the 1970s, is popular among younger Americans, many of whom are middle class and possess a college (liberal arts) education. So how did this movement arise?
In the early days, American colonists relied almost exclusively on farming for survival and the plantations of Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina were profitable agricultural assets for the Crown.
Different ethnic groups introduced various agricultural methods and agricultural advances were made even in the early years, with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) and George Washington’s new methods at Mount Vernon.
The American south, relying much on slave labour, were forerunners of large scale agriculture for profit, exporting large quantities of cotton, sugar, tobacco, indigo, rice, naval stores, and much more, to the northern US and Europe.
With expansion west in the 1800s, agriculture grew by leaps and bounds, as new land was acquired and better forms of transportation (canals and railroads) created. The north also moved from subsistence agriculture to large scale farming, to feed the growing cities that became hubs of industry.
By 1861, the US was splitting apart and two vastly different cultures had arisen: the north, built upon the Industrial Revolution; and the south, built on agriculture, much of which was furnished by slaves.
After the American civil war, the bulk of America’s agricultural success came from the south and west, even though southern agriculture relied on sharecropping. As America grew in its industrial prowess, agriculture also profited through advances in technology and land usage.
In 1860 there were about 2 million farms, with 10 million people living on them. By 1905 there were 6 million farms, with 22 million working and living on them. American agriculture boomed in the early twentieth century, years before tractors were widespread.
However, with rise of mechanisation and steady increase of farm size, the farming culture changed. According to one source, the gross domestic product (GDP) for agriculture declined between 1869 and 2006: ‘Over the past 150 years, the share of US GDP accounted for by farm value-added declined significantly: from 37.5 per cent of GDP in 1869 to 0.8 per cent of GDP in 2006’ (A brief history of US agriculture, Alston, J. M., Chapter 2).
After World War II, the number of farms decreased, but the size of farms increased, as America turned from arms manufacturing to agriculture. Over the next 70 years, America’s agriculture and food industry became a huge, multi-billion dollar industry, complete with mechanisation, specialisation and chemical engineering.
America’s historic, family-oriented agrarian culture was all but lost amidst the hustle and bustle of the ‘baby boomers’ and continued urbanisation of America. However, just as agrarian culture seemed all but extinct, there was a push in the 1960s for ‘returning to the land’ in search of greener pastures. That trend, albeit small, continues to this day.
As America continued to grow into the industrial, urbanised jungle that it is today, there were some people who wanted the simpler things in life.
The ‘back to the land’ movement began in the 1960s, in counter-culture to the urban, industrial way of life. While it began then as a movement ubiquitous with hippies, in an effort to flee consumerism, it soared in the 1970s as people became interested in the environment and concerned about the toll on the land from modern American agriculture and consumerism.
Today, the reasons people seek to return to the land are as varied as the types of people becoming new farmers. An article by Christopher Orlet sums up these people well: ‘These prodigals are hobby farmers: retired financial planners, accountants, and CEOs who made a small fortune and then, when it came time to retire, wanted nothing more than to leave the drab, impersonal suburbs behind and relocate to 100 acres of peaceful river valley.
‘Many of these so-called “countrysiders” are second or third generation city folk, whose fathers or grandfathers moved to the metropolis, hoping to strike it rich quick as a stockbroker, a lawyer, or some other desk professional …
‘Some are aging hippies or simple-living ascetics, witnesses to the havoc materialism and industrialism have wreaked to family, to values, and to morals, who long for a simpler, more natural way of life (American Spectator, October 2013)’.
These new farmers, many of whom have college educations or once had successful urban careers, are starting small, family farms. They have a concern for the natural environment, a humanist worldview that welcomes growing families tied to the land, and a desire to be independent of government control, regulations or stipulations.
To be sure, this kind of ‘new agrarianism’ is definitely the underdog in farming on a commercial level and seems to be fighting an uphill battle. The cost of land is extremely high; the initial investment needed is huge, to even get a foothold; and the usual machinery to run everything is very costly.
Commercial farmers today go for automation, costly machinery and chemicals, or perish in the attempt; the modern way of farming in America is quite depressing. That’s one of the major reasons why people want to return to a good, honest, ‘dirt on your hands’, ‘fresh food on the table’ kind of farming.
Despite competition with commercial farming, this new agrarianism has found a niche market. Farmers like Joel Salatin sell grass-fed, naturally produced, non-chemically induced produce and meat to local citizens and small restaurants, and they are making a killing doing it.
I have been an avid fan of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, Virginia, for many years. His method of farming is an excellent example of how this new worldview and way of agriculture works. Their website says: ‘Polyface, Inc. is a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local market farm … We are in the redemption business, healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture’.
Salatin’s Christian worldview instructs him, as he seeks to redeem farming and educate others about how we can be better stewards of our land, time and food.
Polyface Farms is a prosperous family business that has taken an eroded, rocky piece of Virginia land and turned it into a beautiful, lush and productive farm that has never had an ounce of fertiliser or chemical ‘-cide’ on it in 50 years.
Salatin opens his farm up to visitors and holds regular market days, when people can buy pasture-raised beef, pork, chicken, eggs, turkey and rabbit, in addition to succulent vegetables on a seasonal basis. It’s surely agriculture as it’s meant to be.
As the urban sprawl continues to cover the landscape and society becomes more detached from the simpler things of life, many people have quite literally sought ‘greener pastures’, where cattle feed alongside chickens, which in turn scratch the earth and break up cowpats to fertilise, sanitise and aerate the soil.
The ‘return to the land’ or new agrarianism movement has sought to reform the way we eat, live and think. This movement is not without its enemies, as government agencies seek to hamper the way these farmers grow their crops or process their meat.
In Allan Nation’s foreword to Joel Salatin’s Folks, this ain’t normal, he states, ‘In addition to the usual weather vagaries that afflict all agricultural enterprises, Joel and other small farmers like him has had to struggle with government dictates and regulations that, intentionally or unintentionally, have denied him direct access to the marketplace …’
This is the cry of the new agrarian, and sadly some are put out of business because of government regulations. Small farmers in this niche market have a tough road ahead of them. But their stories and the fame of their produce entice many young folks, including myself, to join the chorus.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA